Sunday, September 15, 2013

What athletes (do and don't) eat

Just like I used to buy a salty and sweet snack as a kid, when I go to the library I usually take out a balance of educational and junky material: most recently, this included a biography of the Tudors (I am a Shakespearean geek); a book on riding; and a trashy tell-all book by former gymnastics star Dominique Moceanu.

Although I always knew that Bela Karolyi was a complete lunatic, the portrait painted of him in the book surpassed even my expectations. While I always assumed gymnast's food was restricted, I did kind of think that they must have to be given some healthy food to sustain 6-8 hours of training in the gym.  Well, apparently, the kids weren't taught anything about protein or carbohydrates and just were flat-out not allowed to eat quite a bit of the time: one time little Dominique was taken to a place called 'the ranch' for a weekend of training only to discover NO food was provided.  She had bought one tiny sandwich as a snack and had to ration it the entire weekend, along with what she was fed by the other girls who had been smarter to stash cases of food with them.  Oh, and in true Dickensian fashion, Dominique was upbraided for smuggling gum, Twizzlers, and Mentos in a teddy bear at another point.


But after watching an equally trashy made-for-TV movie as a kid about Nadia Comaneci I guess I should have known. I loved that film for that reason, despite being a timid, unathletic kid who couldn't even do a cartwheel.
 
It's a stark contrast to read about the austere diet of a female gymnast and contrast it with that of training-level Michael Phelps meals of gargantuan  proportions.

Image credit: Michael Phelps Diet Challenge

However, not all endurance athletes eat with such abandon.  I recently read an article on fruitarianism--a movement led by people who eat ONLY fruit. A competitive distance ultra-marathoner is apparently a convert:

"The name explains what it is...I eat almost only fruit." On a typical day, Arnstein will snack on, say, two dozen bananas. Some health experts say fruitarianism can lead to all sorts of nutrient deficiencies...Arnstein, who takes in between 3,000 and 6,000 calories a day, lost 30 pounds soon after starting the diet and now finds it nearly impossible to gain weight. "

 No shit (no pun intended).

I'm a runner but if I ate nothing but fruit I know my muscles and bones would shrivel up into nothingness.

But then again, Dean Karnazes  who ran 50 marathons in 50 days consumes on a run:

...an extra-large Hawaiian pizza...He'll chase the pizza with cheesecake, cinnamon buns, chocolate ├ęclairs, and all-natural cookies. The high-fat pig-out fuels Karnazes' long jaunts, which can burn more than 9,000 calories a day. What he needs is massive amounts of energy, and fat contains roughly twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates. Hence, pizza and ├ęclairs. When he's not in the midst of some record-breaking exploit, Karnazes maintains a monkish diet, eating grilled salmon five nights a week. He strictly avoids processed sugars and fried foods – no cookies or doughnuts. He even tries to steer clear of too much fruit because it contains a lot of sugar. He believes this approach – which nutritionists call a slow-carb diet – has reshaped him, lowering his body fat and building lean muscle. It also makes him look forward to running a race, because he can eat whatever he wants.

Image credit: Tumblr
It's pretty amazing to me how such accomplished athletes can eat such weird and different diets and thrive--or how athletes in body-conscious sports with crazy coaches can eat next to nothing and compete at an elite level (although many gymnast's bodies often break down very quickly after a few years and the fact that ultra-marathoners' bodies seem LESS likely to do so is a tribute in part to the value of consuming enough calories).  I suppose this is all testimony to the durability of the human mind and will. 

Given my total lack of athletic talent, to be even moderately competent at sports I have to be very careful what I eat (granted, I'm not running as much as an ultramarathoner).  I think every person has to listen to their own body yet respect that many athletes seem to do well on a variety of different diets (although my diet is closer to Karnazes' 'normal' diet).

To be honest, even if I could burn that much fuel during exercise, I'm not quite sure if I would want to eat THAT much: I would probably pass out in pain if I ate an entire Hawaiian pizza and eclair in the middle of a run. But I'm also glad I don't have Bela Karolyi in my kitchen, much as I would like to get up the courage to get into a handstand at some point in my life.
 

10 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness, the idea of eating all that food and then exercising, or eating nothing and then exercising - either is enough to make me want to be sick!

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    1. Exactly, Sarah! It actually made me glad that I am a 'normal' person who works out and can eat a 'normal' amount of food--more than I could if I didn't exercise at all, of course, but not such a grotesque amount. I think competitive endurance athletes do little other than work out, sleep, and eat so much they hardly know what they are eating.

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  2. All these extremes are INSANE. I much prefer my moderation in everything approach to eating. Eating either an entire pizza DURING A RUN (wtf?!) or just fruit would make me seriously ill I think!

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    1. It's true that these are really big dudes who are professional athletes and thus probably have a bit more caloric wiggle room than even the most dedicated amateur marathoner. But yes, the diets of extreme endurance athletes don't make me long to wish that was my great talent in life...I'd much rather be a great horseback rider or basketball player or part of a sport that doesn't require such dietary extremes.

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  3. It is true that eating a lot of food can be difficult sometimes... LOL!

    I have been training for Melbourne marathon which is on early Oct... and have been trying to put on weight lately for this run. I don't really like the idea but this is the way to survive a marathon. The "unpleasant" part is I have to run, eat and burp at the same time - LOL! Disgusting but fun!!!

    Zoe

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    1. Yes, although in general it is good to be lean it is certainly possible to be TOO LEAN even as a runner. The Melbourne marathon should be AMAZING!

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  4. Yeah, I couldn't imagine eating that much food. I think I'd feel sick all of the time!

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    1. Exactly, after a certain point the pleasure of eating gets maxed out by the feeling of fullness...

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  5. Interesting read. I know, many athletes are on "crazy" diets. My hubby used to compete in swimming competitions and he told me he's constantly hungry and could eat whatever his heart/tummy desired and still stay slim. Very low body fat and all muscles. (too bad it was was past tense! hahaha...)

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    1. In his book Born Round, Frank Bruni talks about how he took up swimming in high school at least in part to deal with his binge eating problem--being a competitive swimmer allowed him to eat whatever he wanted for that short, sweet period in his life.

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